By Alexander Bolton - 06-06-17 06:00 AM EDT
Former FBI Director James Comey's testimony to Congress will be a deep test of Republican loyalty to President Trump.
Comey's appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday may be the most dramatic hearing on Capitol Hill in decades.
It's must-watch TV, and CBS and Fox announced Monday that they would carry the hearing live.
Republicans are unlikely to reflexively defend Trump, say Senate aides.
Nearly half of Americans surveyed last month by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal thought Trump fired Comey to slow down the FBI's investigation into possible collusion between his administration and Russia.
Instead, sources say to watch for GOP senators to press Comey on the details of his conversations with the president to determine whether improper pressure was brought on the FBI to drop a politically sensitive investigation.
"That is why the tone, the exact words that were spoken and the context are so important," Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a member of the Intelligence Committee, said on CBS's "Face the Nation" over the weekend.
A Senate GOP aide said committee Republicans are likely to take an independent line.
"The GOP members of the Intelligence Committee are interested in finding out what the truth is. That's what you will see going into Thursday," the aide said.
Another Republican aide predicted a variety of responses from senators to Comey's testimony, depending on their varying degrees of loyalty to Trump.
"Some are going to be very deferential to Comey, some are going to be more confrontational. Some in the Republican Party will be cheering him on, pulling the 'I told you so' card, the never Trump-ers," the aide said.
The deposed FBI chief was fired by Trump in a shocker last month as he oversaw an investigation into the Republican's presidential campaign.
He's now the leading character in a special counsel's investigation into Russia's meddling in the 2016 election, which includes whether there was any collusion between Moscow and Trump's campaign.
Senators are sure to be thinking about 2018, when majorities in the House and Senate will be up for grabs.
Republicans are already nervously looking at the House landscape, where Democrats believe a path to the majority can be forged through districts held by Republicans that were lost or just narrowly won by Trump.
A Reuters/Ipsos tracking poll showed that Trump's approval rating among Republicans has dipped below 75 percent.
In the Senate, the map favors Republicans, who are defending just eight seats compared with 25 for Democrats. Yet Republicans also only enjoy a two-seat majority, and Democrats are already targeting GOP Sens. Dean Heller (Nev.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.).
GOP strategists contacted by The Hill on Monday held different views on the best way for Republicans to handle the dramatic day.
"The best strategy is to call for an objective and fair assessment and investigation into all the facts," said Whit Ayres, a GOP strategist who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Ayres noted that GOP senators largely won election last year running apart from Trump, which makes the case that independence is a good strategy.
Other Republican strategists say senators should be careful about handcuffing the party to the president while the results of the investigations are unknown.
"They owe loyalty to the Constitution of the United States of America," said John Weaver, a former adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of Trump's most outspoken Republican critics in Washington.
Weaver, who worked for Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), one of Trump's rivals during the 2016 GOP presidential primaries, said Republicans must be wary of carrying water for Trump.
"They need to not get in the way of any investigation or try to obfuscate," he said. "We cannot handcuff ourselves to a guy who has no loyalty to the Constitution or the party, either.
"Don't go out of your way to hinder an investigation into possible collusion with Russia or covering up any potential collusion with Russia."
Trump has few if any ardent defenders in the Senate - unlike in the House, where he can count on stalwarts such as Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.).
Some Senate Republicans praised Comey after his firing. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who will be presiding over Thursday's hearing, called Comey's dismissal "a loss for the bureau and the nation."
GOP senators often respond to Trump's latest controversial tweets with exasperation or refuse to answer questions about him at all.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said last month that he wants "less drama from the White House."
While many Republicans don't want to side with Trump over Comey or get bogged down in the middle of a controversy that might blow up later, they also won't want to let Democrats score political points without pushback.
"They don't want hyperbole; they don't want politicization. They want truth and the facts. It's going to be a very toxic environment," said the GOP aide.
Senate Democrats will try to drive a wedge between GOP lawmakers and the Trump administration in order to divide the Republican Party and slow down its agenda.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who is viewed as a possible top-tier contender in the 2020 presidential election, has urged colleagues and liberal activists to ramp up pressure on Republican senators.
"We got to turn the heat up under Republicans," she told activists at a meeting last week sponsored by the left-leaning group Credo.